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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Single Malt Report: Bunnahabhain 12 years old

Bunnahabhain.  Yeah, that's how it's spelt.

An empty dram of it.

Here's what a full fifth of it looks like:

The dram is mine, the bottle is not.  Sadly.

Bunnahabhain.  Still working on spelling it.  It's Gaelic for "Mouth of the River".

Pronounced (pro-nownst) Boo-na-hah-vin, Bunnahabhain, along with Bruichladdich (we'll get to that one another time) are the two Islay distilleries that are the hardest to spell.  But more importantly they're the two Islay distilleries that keep their malt peating to a tiny minimum.

So it's a bit of a switcheroo on one's whisky wits when one sips this Islay and the silky sherried malty malt hits the tastebuds.  Donde esta el fuego del peat?  No esta aqui.  (Guess who almost got a 'Fail' in Pass-Fail Spanish 3???  Señor Krav.)

Let's get to some history:

The distillery was built in 1881 by a partnership of Robertson & Baxter (Glasgow) and the Greenlees Brothers (Campbeltown).  This partnership became Highland Distilleries in 1887 and would later become quite the powerhouse, also owning Macallan and Highland Park.  Production at the Bunnahabhain officially began in 1883 and has survived multiple whisky droughts, Prohibition, industry-wide overproduction, and two world wars.

They doubled their stills in 1963, creating what was then the largest production capacity on Islay (now surpassed by Caol Ila).  In 1999, Highland Distilleries was acquired by The Edrington Group.  In 2003, it was sold to Burn Stewart Distillers -- who are part of the conglomerate that owns Belvedere Vodka and Angostura Bitters.

Bunnahabhain's unpeated malt was developed specifically for blending, as it was an element of Cutty Sark and a major ingredient in Black Bottle (also owned by Burn Stewart).  They first started bottling it as a single malt in the 1970s and haven't changed the label of the saluting sailor and "Westering Home" motto since.

Maturation: Sherry casks
Region: Islay (North Shore)
Alcohol by Volume: 46.3%

Around 2010, this twelve-year old malt's ABV had increased from 40% to 46.3%.  The whisky also has no artificial coloring and isn't chill-filtered.  Three great things working in its favor (flavor?) right there.

The color is a very dark amber, courtesy of sherry casks.
My first reaction about the nose: "It smells like a sweetie!"  That's the first time an Islay gave me that reaction.  There's lots of sherry in the nose.  Maraschino cherries.  Liquor-filled chocolates.  Sweet citrus (maybe oranges?).  Cherry lolipops.  And toasted candied walnuts.
The palate was very full and silky.  Full of nuts and sherriness.  Very fragrant fruits, like lychee or fresh apricots.
More sherry cask in the lengthy finish.  More of the sweet citrus.  Very warm.


WITH WATER, about 30% ABV
The nose is lighter, airier.  Still some sherry, but the malt jumps forward.
The palate ... well, here are my notes: "Creamier, cream, and also creamy."
The finish was a spicy sherry creamsicle.

Clearly this one's best for (or with) dessert.  In a blindfold test, I would never guess that it's an Islay.  Most of the great whisky noses out there can find a tiny bit of the Islay salt and smoke.  Distracted by the big sherry, I didn't find it.  But I'd love to give it seven or eight more tries...

[Update (2/28/12) -- Found it!  Found the peat.  Had a glass of Bunny 12 for dessert at Postrio at The Venetian in Vegas.  Perhaps it was the brandy snifter, perhaps it was a fresh bottle, perhaps I was on my game.  The peat is lovely and subtle, not intrusive.  Possibly even a starter Islay for the peat averse.  This scootches it up one spot in the rankings.)

Pricing - Very Good at $45, Sorta Acceptable at $55
Rating - 86

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